How Catholic is the CTSA?

In June 1997, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston aroused great indignation by writing that the Catholic Theological Society of America "has become an association of advocacy for theological dissent" and, in fact, "a wasteland."

To assess the validity of this characterization one has only to peruse the recent volumes of the CTSA Proceedings. The latest volume, based on the 1997 convention, is a show-case example. The convention theme, "The Eucharist for the Twenty-First Century," might be regarded as a promising Catholic enterprise. But the outcome belied the promise. The convention speakers mounted a series of attacks on Catholic doctrine more radical, it would seem, than the challenges issued by Luther and Calvin.

Most notoriously, the convention put itself on record as collectively opposing the irrevocable character of the teaching that the church has no authority to ordain women. The conclusions of a committee report to this effect were endorsed by a landslide vote of 216 Yes, 22 No, and 10 abstentions. The vote was widely, and I believe correctly, interpreted as a dissent not only from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s declaration on the subject but also from the pope’s call for definitive adherence to his teaching.

The theological dissent, however, runs far deeper, as the convention addresses demonstrate. In an orchestrated chorus they rejected fundamental articles of Catholic belief regarding priesthood and Eucharist as expressed by the Council of Trent, the Second Vatican Council, the synods of bishops, Paul VI, John Paul II, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Some examples may here be given.

One speaker lamented what he described as the "ideological misuse" of the imagery of Christ as Bridegroom and the importance of the maleness of Christ. The idea that the priest-celebrant acts in persona Christi was repeatedly assailed. The debate "about in whose persona the priest acts in the Eucharist," one speaker sarcastically declared, is of interest "primarily as a disputational exercise, yielding occasional experiences of theological "Gotcha.’"

Speaker after speaker rose to proclaim that the Eucharist is accomplished not by the priest-celebrant but by the whole assembly. It is clearly established, according to one, that the baptized, rather than the ordained, are "the effective human subjects of the church’s liturgy." The particular liturgical assembly works as a collective subject invoking the memoria Christi by the power of the Holy Spirit. The priest, said another speaker, simply leads the assembly in prayer and action on the basis of his or her qualities of leadership. In the "new paradigm" for sacramental ministry, leadership depends not on a particular state in life or gender but on "demonstrated abilities or charisms."

No special importance is ascribed to the words of institution, recited by the celebrant. Sacramental theology, we are informed, "needs to question the very notion of a consecratory formula." The doctrine of ex opere operato needs to be reinterpreted to mean not "arbitrary rubrics" but explicit acknowledgment of the power of God and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. In his delivery, I am told, the speaker commented that "validity is a small concern." Too small?

In American Catholicism today, said another speaker, "parishioners are no longer distinguishing between those rituals performed by the permanently ordained clergy and those rituals performed by laity." "Despite the protests of the magisterium," he contended, the difference between permanent and temporary forms of ordination is being "minimized."

Notwithstanding the prohibitions repeatedly issued by church authorities, the speakers at this convention did not shy away from advocating the celebration of the Eucharist without an ordained priest. Current Roman Catholic directives regarding Communion services in the absence of a priest are flawed, said one theologian, because they misconceive the Eucharist as the work of a single ordained minister. Unordained leaders can perform truly eucharistic actions. When a priest is present, the whole assembly should join in the posture and gestures of the priest, even at the recitation of the institution narrative.

At a workshop on "women and the Eucharist," a priest who meekly asked about how he could better respond to the sensitivities of women religious was sharply reminded that "priests may not be as central to the liturgy as some perceive themselves to be." Another participant issued an open invitation for members to participate in a "critical Mass" at which unordained women would preside. Acts of "public ritual transgression," said still another, are a desirable tactic to "crack open" the meaning of the Eucharist.

The convention, taken in general, was as vigorous as any sixteenth-century Reformer in seeking to banish the ideas of ordained priesthood and sacrifice, neither of which, in the judgment of several speakers, should be seen as anything more than metaphorical. These views were set forth with a certain display of historical erudition, as though doctrines could be invalidated by tagging them chronologically. The sacerdotalized vocabulary of the Christian church, said one speaker, was a problematic development of the third century, when the concept of Christian priesthood began to be taken literally rather than metaphorically. The medieval Scholastics were castigated by another speaker for having promoted the idea of sacrifice as a vehicle for concentrating the liturgy on the cultic action of the ordained minister. Still another observed that Thomas Aquinas, with his views on transubstantiation, was "an idiosyncratic voice in thirteenth-century eucharistic theology and by the end of that century, a voice which ceased to convince." Ritual ordination, one speaker remarked, was not specifically linked with consecration in official church teaching until 1215. A historical work was footnoted to prove that only in the fifteenth century did the church begin to teach officially "that order is a sacrament which is permanently effective and 'imprints character.'"

In our day—it would seem—we are liberated from all these illusions. We can shift the focus away from the cultic actions and concentrate rather on what one speaker strangely called "the eucharistic experience of Jesus." A woman psychiatrist was cited as a witness to the sad plight of those Catholics, clergy and laity alike, for whom the "traditional" liturgical practice and doctrine "served positively as a mediating "'transitional object' connecting them with the divine mystery."

In a workshop on "Sunday with Campus Ministry but without a Priest" the audience was regaled with an account of how two lay persons replaced an ordained priest at a regular Sunday worship service. The speaker, alluding to James Fowler’s stages-of-faith development, made a rather revealing comment. He spoke of "the movement from the synthetic conventional faith to the individuative reflective faith." The terminology speaks volumes. It insinuates that adherence to the Catholic tradition and to the teaching of the church can only be conventional and unreflective. Significant too is the reference to "individuation." Reflective faith, it would seem, must arise from individual creativity rather than from participation in the faith of the church.

My own conclusion (not, I hope, a purely individual or unreflective one!) is that the 1997 convention of the CTSA confirms the presence of severe fault lines in contemporary American Catholicism, especially in the theological community. The CTSA, apparently driven by an urge for theological self-assertion against hierarchical authority, widens the gap and constitutes a kind of alternative magisterium for dissatisfied Catholics. It tends to impose an orthodoxy of its own. Graduate students who hope to find university teaching positions, and younger faculty seeking promotion and tenure, feel almost compelled to attend the CTSA and to refrain from vocal criticism.

Theologians are faced with a drastic choice: whether to follow the directions represented by the CTSA or to adhere to the tradition as taught by the popes and councils. Church authorities are faced with a similar choice. Can they recognize the CTSA as Catholic? Can anything be done to clarify or restore its Catholic character? Or must some new theological agency, more committed to Catholic principles, be established?

Sound and responsible statements can surely be found in the 1997 Proceedings, but they are difficult to come by in the major addresses on the convention theme. While my own reading is quite negative, I am anxious to hear from others whether they can make the case for a more favorable reading of the volume.


Read more: Responses to this question from Mary Ann Donovan, SC, and Peter Steinfels
Readers respond: Letters, April 24, 1998

Published in the 1998-03-27 issue: 

Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, held the Laurence J. McGinley Chair of Religion and Society at Fordham University until his death in December 2008.

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